Why You Shouldn’t Do Cardio Every Day
The Importance of Rest and Recovery Days
Several years ago, I trained a highly active young professional who had the goal of being at competitor-level muscle mass and body fat percentage. His commitment to attaining a ripped physique was realistic at his current level of fitness, and he arrived at every session with a fantastic, can-do attitude.
However, as months of training went on, he did not make significant gains either in muscle mass, in fat loss, or in performance. He maintained his healthy weight but still carried that small, baffling margin of fat that is maddening to people who want to lean out.
Then, I began to notice that every time I arrived at his apartment gym for our training sessions, he was warming up on the elliptical. It was so consistent, that one day I casually asked him, “You’re not doing the elliptical every day, are you?”
As it turned out, he wasn’t just warming up. He was banging out 30-60 intense minutes of cardio every single day on top of our training sessions.
“If you take rest days,” I said conversationally, “it will give your body a chance to catch up with itself and you will make more progress.”
His half-joking reply revealed why he was not making progress: “Rest days are for the weak.”
Rest days are for the wise.
Overtraining, especially doing vigorous cardio every day, is more than a mistake – it is a mindset. It is a ritualistic death-grip on calorie burn motivated by fear of weight gain that, ironically, blocks people from their goals.
Excessive cardio doesn’t keep calories in balance. Often, it puts people in a state of low-energy availability – this is a technical term that basically means all your calories are used for exercise and there aren’t enough resources left over for bodily health (like proper endocrine function). When someone lives in a chronic state of low energy availability, they’re more likely to struggle with fat loss, long-term performance improvement, and niggling sports injuries.
Counterintuitively, the best way to provide metabolic challenge for your body is to vary the intensity of your workouts and to budget in rest and recovery time. You will make progress faster, whether you’re working on weight loss or sports performance, by including rest days and variety in your training plan.
Here are my top 10 tips for maximizing your cardio work:
Be realistic about what cardio can achieve for you, vs. improving your nutrition habits. Overdoing cardio often comes from a place of fear, that if you don’t over-exercise, you’ll gain (or re-gain) weight. High levels of physical activity are correlated with maintaining a healthy weight (especially if you’ve lost weight), but it can make your life easier if your nutrition is also aligned with your goals. (Check out my free 28-Day Meal Prep Guide to get more ideas and structure.)
Do something fun and easy on rest days. Take walks. Go for a hike. Go for a lazy bike ride. Keep moving as part of a healthy lifestyle, but give your regular cardio habit a break several days a week.
Limit your rest days to three per week. In other words, taking rest days isn’t a license to exercise once a week. It just means that you’re peppering your exercise days (which should be sufficiently vigorous/difficult) with recovery days in between. One to three days per week is sufficient.
Strength train. Focus on mixing up cardio with vigorous weight training. Alternating days is a great plan, with a few rest days per week.
Vary your cardio length, intensity, and style. Instead of doing the exact same cardio workout every single time, mix it up. Some days, do short sprints followed by rest. Other days, do long, endurance-style workouts that are tiring but not intense. On yet other days, do intervals or “blocks” of challenging endurance work (say, 2-4 minutes at a time) followed by short rests. By varying up your cardio approach, you continue to improve while preventing adaptation.
Try to avoid intensely exercising sore muscle areas. If you are sore, that is your body’s message to take it easy. If your legs are still stiff but you’ve already taken a rest day, don’t run. Take a day to work on your arms, chest, or core. You can still work out hard, but just a different area!
Get your sleep in order with healthy habits. Sleep is an important component of recovery, and having the same routine every night, as well as the same waking time every morning, helps with restorative rest. Decrease screen time in the evening, and make your bedroom a place of peace and renewal.
Trust your body and trust the process. Overtraining, especially doing too much cardio, come from a place of fear. Rest comes from a place of trust. Your body is not an enemy that must be punished into submission through exercise. It is a partner on your journey, and it will work with you when its needs are met.
If you feel like you have to over-do cardio to manage your weight and can never get ahead with your goals, get in touch. I work with clients like this every single day, and they make more progress than they ever could have believed possible!